A 20th-century giant
New biography claims FDR saved the world, but where's Eleanor?
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's central role in American history is indisputable. He successfully guided the nation through the Great Depression and World War II and, in doing so, forever changed the role and place of the federal government in American society. Yet, nearly 60 years after his death, he remains as complex, mysterious, and controversial as he was during his lifetime.
Conrad Black looks at this quintessential American politician from an unusual perspective. Born in Canada, Black became an influential publisher who eventually gave up his Canadian citizenship to become a British peer. Until recently, he was the chief executive and chairman of Hollinger International, an empire that included The Daily Telegraph, The Jerusalem Post, and The Chicago Sun Times. Now Lord Black of Crossharbour, he is well known in conservative political circles on both sides of the Atlantic.
In recent months, Conrad Black and Hollinger have been the subject of criticism and an SEC investigation for financial improprieties. There is, however, absolutely no evidence that these problems have affected "Champion of Freedom" in any way. The book can, and should, be examined on its own.
Despite his conservative credentials, Black reveres Roosevelt. In his words: "Roosevelt was the most important person of the 20th century," and he argues that his standing in American history is on a par with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. His greatness, according to Black, rests on several achievements: he (along with Winston Churchill) saved Western civilization; perma- nently ended America's global isolationism; reshaped American government; exhibited unmatched mastery of the American political system; and triumphed decisively over his disability.
Black adds one additional accomplishment that runs contrary to the conventional wisdom. Many historians believe that Roosevelt's physical infirmities at Yalta prevented him from standing up to Stalin and therefore gave the Soviets too much freedom to enslave Eastern Europe. In Black's view, however, Yalta actually "laid the groundwork" that enabled FDR's postwar successors "to complete the Allied victory in World War II" and, eventually, to liberate Eastern Europe.
Black argues that Roosevelt made reasonable, if largely futile, efforts to bring Stalin into the fold of responsible world leaders throughout World War II. But because FDR held no illusions about Stalin, he also sought to contain the Soviets. For example, he minimized Russia's postwar influence in France and Italy, made sure that the Western allies occupied as much of Germany as possible, moved decisively to develop atomic weapons, and was the principal creator of the United Nations, which provided a framework for international cooperation and a counterweight to Soviet expansionism. The reader may argue with this assessment, but Black's analysis is extensive and thoughtful.
While his admiration for Roosevelt is unwavering, he does not hesitate to spotlight his subject's shortcomings. He finds plenty to criticize. For example, Roosevelt's decision to intern Japanese-Americans, his reflexive hostility toward Charles de Gaulle, his unwillingness to help European Jews when it could have been done relatively easily, and his timidity in dealing with racial segregation are extensively examined. Roosevelt's poor judgment about some of those he trusted, such as Joseph P. Kennedy and Henry Wallace, and his personal shortcomings - such as his detachment, failure to level with friends and associates, and even his failures as a father - are discussed at length.
In addition to this rich and detailed biography, the book includes an extensive political history of the first half of the 20th century and an in-depth political and military history of World War II. Black weaves these themes together in a way that substantially enriches the story. For example, he describes in detail how FDR's close study of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson informed his own approach to governing.
The volume has some shortcomings: It is based largely on secondary sources, and some parts of Roosevelt's life receive too little attention (despite the book's massive length). Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, seems to appear only occasionally to browbeat Franklin about some cause or another that Black either finds hopelessly liberal or impractical or both.
And like many biographers, he can't resist including every trivial anecdote he uncovered. Perhaps, not surprisingly, when the author is the company CEO, the editors did not excise extraneous material with the gusto they might use on authors who don't also sign their paychecks. Roosevelt certainly deserves a long and thorough examination, and it's hard to imagine how a brief biography could succeed, given his extraordinary challenges and accomplishments, but still, this volume is 250 pages longer than necessary.
The biggest problem with such a long book is that its sheer volume will discourage some readers from attempting it. And that's a shame because "Champion of Freedom" is comprehensive, balanced, and thoughtful - a magnificent book that deserves a wide readership.
• Terry W. Hartle is a senior vice president with the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.